Equipped with a passion for hands-on science from an early age, Professor Monica Higgins of the environmental studies department once sat in the back of her mom’s middle school science classroom in Morningtown, West Virginia, exploring magnets and fetal pig dissections.
“It was always fun and exciting because there was always something interesting to put your hands on,” Higgins said.
Higgins’ childhood love of hands-on scientific learning stayed with her. She earned her undergraduate, graduate and doctorate degrees in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh and University of Michigan.
“I’ve always been interested in the application of math and science to real problems, which is what led me to engineering to start with,” she said.
When Higgins first gravitated towards engineering in college, she thought she was interested in designing buildings, but soon shifted her focus to environmental engineering.
“I quickly discovered at Pitt how designing buildings was boring to me. At the same I think I got really excited about how much science, specifically chemistry, there was in environmental engineering, so I was really drawn to the problems of water quality,” Higgins said.
Once she began doing research at Michigan, Higgins found herself getting excited about how much chemistry she had an opportunity to learn in environmental engineering.
“My focus in Michigan was on environmental impact assessment, specifically related to the use of iron sulfide nanoparticles for groundwater remediation,” she said.
While exploring problems of groundwater and groundwater quality, Higgins also become interested in life cycle assessments. These assessments are a process by which scientists can approximate the environmental impact of a product based on information in a database, so that manufacturers understand the product they are making and consumers know the impact of the products they are buying.
“My interests are in how specifically we do life cycle assessments, and how we incorporate different contaminants into our understanding of environmental impact,” Higgins said. “Quite specifically, I’m interested in how we model metals in our life cycle assessments in such a way that we are treating them fairly from the chemical standpoint but also from a risk standpoint.”
The life cycle assessments that Higgins performs today at Wellesley can inform us about the full lifespan of products we use and which may impact our environment.
“The life cycle assessments I do would not only tell you about greenhouse gas emission, but also about the whole life cycle of a product from sourcing the material, to manufacturing it, to using it, to disposing of it and impacts like greenhouse gases but also human health effects, cancer and non cancer, smog, acidification and eutrophication,” Higgins said.
While Higgins has been focussing more on teaching than research since she came to Wellesley seven years ago, she feels she has really found a home here in the environmental studies department.
“As I finished my PhD, I had been in an engineering bubble, and I felt like it was a really interesting and great opportunity to move here and teach a wider variety of students than just engineers,” Higgins said. “You [students] bring a wealth of knowledge and experience and enthusiasm into the classroom for the kinds of things that I spent my life studying or thinking about.”
Higgins is not only excited about teaching Wellesley students, but is impressed with the environmental work that Wellesley students are doing through student organizations on campus, such as Environmental Action at Wellesley College (EnAct).
“I feel like students here are really clued into what the key issues of our time are in the way that young people are,” Higgins said. “I think through the student groups they are doing some great work on moving us as a campus community in the direction that we need to go.”